What’s always interesting to me, every election year, is how the general assumption that we’re a democracy permeates our understanding of how government functions such that we get a lot of strange ideas in our heads. So, to help mitigate some of this confusion, I offer the following bits of information about our government in the hopes that it will be edifying to all.
It’s All About the States
You heard me right. Our government is actually made up of three tiers, but each tier is chosen differently, and the states are the key to understanding the federal process.
If you draw back on your American History classes, I’m sure you’ll come up with the right reasons for which we have the two different representations in the House and Senate. Basically, the large states believed that they should have greater representation because they had the largest number of people1 and the small states were fearful of not having a large enough say on matters that effected them2.
The same is true with the Primaries and with the General Election for President. The number of delegates or electors are determined by a formula that adds the number of senators to the number of representatives and that number is up for grabs. It’s up to the states to figure out how the groups get them, however.
In the case of the primaries, each political party can determine their attribution. This year, the Democrats are doing percentage apportionment whereas the Republicans are doing winner-take-all. On the Dem side, this means that even though a candidate may win the state, the loser may still get a fair percentage of delegates. This has really hurt Hillary in that she won the bigger states, but some delegates still went to Obama.
In the case of electors, it’s up to the state legislators to choose how their electors will be split up. For the majority of the nation, it’s winner-take-all. Some states base some of it on the percentage of the popular vote. What is important to realize, however, is that it is the electors and delegates that actually choose the representatives.
Your Vote for Bush or Kerry was really a vote for Joe Smith
The people that are actually casting votes in these elections are not you and I, but people that are aligned with those people that we vote for. Said simply, your vote in the primary for one of the candidates is actually a vote to send delegates from your state that have aligned themselves with the candidate you selected. Same thing in the general election. You are actually choosing electors to go vote for the candidate.
Although there may be some places where there are laws about defecting, in most cases there are secret ballots or even in the case of a brokered convention, votes may not end up the way they were intended (though most do). In the past few elections for President there have been electors that protested, and those that have misspelled names!
This is also the reason that write-in candidates for President are not as straightforward as it might seem. You actually have to write in an elector, because your vote for name X on the ballot is actually a vote for an elector.
Think this is hairy? Reading some people, it appears that the Founding Fathers expected Congress to decide the Presidency much more than it has. You see, if no one reaches the threshold for winning (currently 270 electoral votes) it’s up to the houses of Congress to choose the President and Vice President, and this was actually quite common in the years after our Constitution was signed.
It’s relatively recent that we’ve only had two strong political parties, and I think that we’d be better off if we could get more parties instead of the two. What do you think?
- Hence the House where representation is based on population.
- Hence the Senate, where every state has two Senators regardless of size.